Wisconsin adapts to new reality as Big Ten favorites

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By ALEX PUTTERMAN
College Contributor Network

Fresh off a Final Four appearance, with expectations for their program higher than they've ever been, Wisconsin's players have developed a curious team slogan: "Make 'em believe."

"Hard to explain I guess," senior guard Josh Gasser says. "It started as a little joke. (Forward) Vitto Brown kind of just joking around in the locker room, saying 'Make 'em believe' to whoever, with all sorts of things. That kind of transitioned to basketball."

Before this past March, the Badgers had more than a few disbelievers to correct.

Despite qualifying for the NCAA Tournament in each of coach Bo Ryan's 12 seasons at the helm, Wisconsin had never reached a Final Four under Ryan. The Badgers had gradually gained the reputation as a strong regular-season program without the wherewithal to advance in March.

But Frank Kaminsky became an inside-out star, Ben Brust caught fire from three-point range, Traveon Jackson improved on his season averages in every major category, and Wisconsin cruised to the Elite Eight, then snuck by top-seed Arizona and into the Final Four.

A game-winning three from Kentucky's Aaron Harrison ended the Badgers run there but not before Ryan and company had convinced much of America of Wisconsin's merit as a top-tier program.

With seven of the team's top eight players from last year returning for 2014-15, the Badgers are the preseason consensus Big Ten favorite and rank third and fourth in the AP and USA Today/Coaches polls, respectively.

But even near-unanimous belief can't undermine the "Make 'em believe," catchphrase. Now, Kaminsky says, "It's making them believe that what they're saying is true."

* * *

A typical Ryan-era Wisconsin team doesn't bother with preseason expectations, it plods its way to the top of the conference without celebration. A typical Ryan-era Wisconsin doesn't feature shiny NBA prospects, it rolls out afterthoughts who succeed through dedication to a carefully honed system.

Thus, the 2014 incarnation of the Badgers strays from program history just a bit.

Not only is Wisconsin favored unanimously to win the Big Ten, Kaminsky was tabbed Preseason Big Ten Player of the Year, and guard Sam Dekker joined the big man on the preseason all-conference first-team.

Not since Alando Tucker eight seasons ago has a Badger player been as celebrated as Kaminsky, and not since Devin Harris 11 years ago has one been as attractive to NBA scouts as Dekker.

Wisconsin isn't exactly shying away from the appreciation but rather contextualizing it.

"It feels good knowing that the hard work has paid off for people to have some nice things to say about me and our team," Kaminsky says. "But at the end of the day, once the ball's tipped, that doesn't mean anything."

"Obviously you appreciate it, you see it, you think it's cool," Dekker adds. "But we have a lot of things to worry about."

At Big Ten Media Day last month, the Badgers gave no impression the expectations are flattering or humbling to them. They emitted no "aw shucks," happy-to-be-here vibes. The program is as high as it's ever been, but there's room to ascend further, to win two more games and accomplish the ultimate goal of an NCAA championship.

Kaminsky and Dekker both could have left school after the loss to Kentucky and been selected in the NBA Draft. Both chose to stay because they're serious about bouncing back from the heartbreaking defeat and improving on last season's result.

Gasser says tasting a portion of glory without eating the full meal has Wisconsin hungrier than before.

"We were one possession away from playing in the National Championship," the senior says. "The farther you get in the NCAA Tournament, the harder the losses get. And making it that far and losing in such a close game, it just really hurts you and makes you want to get back."

For years Ryan faced the stigma of being the best coach in the country to have never led a team to the Final Four. But the players say the breakthrough didn't change his demeanor, his perspective or how he treats his players.

And it certainly won't alter his approach to the season.

"You can't possibly think that I woke up this fall thinking, 'Oh, wow, I'm going to do something different this year,'" Ryan says. "We're not."

The Badgers play a loaded non-conference schedule. They'll compete Thanksgiving weekend in the Battle 4 Atlantis, part of a field featuring No. 6 North Carolina and No. 7 Florida, then host No. 4 Duke days later.

And though the top of the Big Ten (outside of Wisconsin) should be slightly less formidable than in recent years, easy conference wins are still tough to come by and every team will circle their date with the Badgers.

Inevitably Wisconsin will slip up, lose a few games and invite doubt back to Madison.

Which will only restore meaning to the Badgers' catchphrase and present them a new opportunity to make 'em believe.


Alex Putterman is a junior Journalism major at Northwestern University and sports editor of the Daily Northwestern student newspaper. He has fairly eclectic interests but loves baseball above all. Follow him on Twitter: @AlexPutt02
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